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What the British public really think about international students

Karmjit Kaur

Karmjit Kaur

Assistant Director, Political Affairs
Universities UK

Today, Universities UK (UUK) publishes a new poll​ on the British public's perceptions of international students.

When politicians say the vote to leave the EU reflects immigration concerns, this simply cannot be said for international students. The North East region voted to leave the EU, yet only 22% of those polled there defined international students as immigrants and 73% want to see them work in the UK for a fixed period of time after they have graduated.

 In 2015, the then Home Secretary Theresa May said that "Because immigration is too high, when the pace of change is too fast, it's impossible to build a cohesive society". Today's poll reveals that 61% of the public think international students have a valuable social and cultural impact on university towns and cities – hardly bad for a cohesive society.

One can easily pre-empt the government's response to this new evidence. Now is the time to debunk some of them: 

"There is no cap on the number of international students coming to the UK"

If you include international students in a target where you intend to reduce to the number to the tens of thousands, you are essentially imposing an unofficial cap.

By doing this, the government is sending out a message that they want to see fewer international students and are unwilling to compete in a global market that is growing at a significant rate.

"International students are included in net migration statistics that are produced by the independent Office for National Statistics. In line with the internationally agreed UN definition, these statistics define a migrant as someone changing their normal place of residence for more than a year. Students are therefore included in the same way as other migrants."

Universities UK does not argue that international students should not be counted in migration figures – rather they should not be included in a net migration target – which strives to see net migration down to the tens of thousands.

There are also problems with the way net migration is measured particularly, namely the International Passenger Survey where there is an unexplained gap between the numbers of students recorded as entering the UK and the number of former students recorded as departing. Jo Attwooll has written more on this.

"Other countries, such as the United States, Canada, and Australia also include students in their net migration figures."

This is true. But they also have specific targets to increase their international students. They don't, like the UK, include them in a target that is aimed at reducing the number of migrants. They distinguish between what they consider to be temporary and permanent migrants, in a way that the UK does not.  

The USA classify international students as non-immigrants alongside tourists, business visitors and those on cultural exchange programmes, while in Australia they are classified as temporary migrants alongside tourists and visitors and in Canada they are classified as temporary residents.

"Like other migrants, students who stay for longer than 12 months have an impact on communities, infrastructure and services while they are here, so it is right that they are included in the net migration count."

Including international students in a net migration count and distinguishing them from other migrants for public policy purposes are two different things, and are not mutually exclusive, as other countries have shown.

Further, international students have positive net impact on their local economies which ought to be considered. They contribute £25.8 billion to the UK economy in total, alongside 206,600 jobs. For example, a study for the University of Sheffield found that students consume far less in terms of public services than the average individual in the region.

"Since 2010, we have seen a 17% increase in the number of university applications from outside the EU"  

Visa applications are not the same as either the number of visas granted or the number of international students enrolling. The number of applicants for Tier 4 visas for university study did increase by 17% - however this has not resulted in a commensurate increase in international student enrolments. In fact, total enrolments of international students only rose by 4% between 2010–11 and 2015–16, and new enrolments – which can be considered more representative of recent trends – decreased by 1%. You can read Eleanor Jubb's blog for more of an insight into student applications and numbers.

So, put simply, when politicians and others speak of addressing the public's concerns around immigration by limiting the numbers coming to the UK, they should not be including international students in this narrative. ​

We are at a significant turning point in the UK, as we prepare to leave the EU, and the government works to shape an Industrial Strategy 'fit for a global Britain'. International students should be seen as an asset, not a burden to both of these, and we hope to see the government put out this positive story in the important months to come. 

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Gideon Pius Shino
Gideon Pius Shino says:
23 June 2017 at 22:05

I am impressed my your perception over international students, though little has been done when it comes to funding the needy.

mv campo
mv campo says:
10 July 2017 at 09:42

Indeed, a global Britain should adopt an inclusive attitude to the international student community.  Otherwise,  it would not be consistent with its goals and aspirations. 

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